Pioneers in Public Relations History

As a student of public relations, you should understand that the profession has a history and a heritage. It has been shaped by women and men whose actions and ideas have made the difference. Following are notes about some of these figures important to an understanding of the development of public relations.  

           (R.D. Smith; updated Fall 2017)        


H. S. ADAMS wrote the first magazine article about public relations in 1902 when American Review published "What Is Publicity?"

SAMUEL ADAMS orchestrated public relations for the Revolutionary War. He organized the Sons of Liberty, developed the symbol of the liberty tree, staged the Boston Tea Party, named the Boston Massacre, and developed a propaganda campaign which lasted for more than 20 years.

JOSEPH VARNEY BAKER left his job as city editor with the Philadelphia Tribune in 1934 to become public relations consultant with the Pennsylvania Railroad. He later opened his own agency in New York City, the first African-American to gain national prominence as a public relations practitioner. Baker also was the first African-American to become president of a chapter of the Public Relations Society of America and the first to become accredited by PRSA.

PHINEAS T. BARNUM was a 19th Century circus promoter and press agent, a showman in every sense of the word. He staged bizarre events and generated sensational publicity for his circus. His association with public relations lies in his mastery of promotion and press agentry, out of which has developed the publicity model of public relations.

LEONE BAXTER and her husband CLEM WHITAKER in 1933 founded the first public relations agency for political campaign management. The agency handled campaigns for several California governors and for President Eisenhower. Eventually Ms. Baxter became head of the agency, Whitaker and Baxter International.

EDWARD BERNAYS was a press agent and public relations consultant to many clients, including Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Calvin Coolidge, the American Tobacco Company, General Electric, Alcoa, American Dental Association, Dodge Motors, NAACP, and many others. In 1923 wrote Crystallizing Public Relations, which provided principles and practices for an emerging profession. At New York University, he taught the first college course in public relations. A nephew of Sigmund Freud, Bernays developed public relations as an applied social science. He applied psychology in public persuasion campaigns. He developed the concept of public relations as “the engineering of consent” which he called “the very essence of the democratic process, the freedom to persuade or suggest.” Along with Ivy Lee, Bernays is considered one of the founding fathers of the public relations profession. He died in 1995 at the age of 103. Life magazine named him one of the 100 most influential Americans of the 20th century. His wife, DORIS FLEISCHMAN, was a public relations pioneer in her own right. She counseled clients in the arts, business, government, and education. Fleischman advocated for issues such as women’s pay and the advancement of women in media careers. In 1925, she became the first married American woman to be issued a U.S. passport in her maiden name.

HAROLD BURSON emphasized marketing-oriented public relations to build his agency, Burson-Marsteller, which today is one of the largest public relations agencies in the world.

CARL BYOIR, associate chair of the Committee on Public Information, in 1930 founded his own agency, Carl Byoir and Associates. In 1973 CB&A became the first of several major public relations agencies to become subsidiaries of advertising firms.

EDWARD CLARKE and BESSIE TYLER established the Southern Publicity Association, which created a promotional campaign for the Ku Klux Klan, increasing KKK membership from a few thousand in 1920 to 3 million in 1923. Despite the ethical issues raised by their organization, their success gives insight into the effectiveness of various promotional practices.


JAY COOKE directed the first American fundraising drive when he conceived a plan to sell Union war bonds during the Civil War.


GEORGE CREEL headed the Committee on Public Information (AKA Creel Committee) during the Wilson administration. The committee mobilized public opinion to support the U.S. effect in World War One. Creel used public relations techniques to sell Liberty Bonds, promote food conservation, and build the Red Cross.


ELMER DAVIS, a former journalist, headed the Office of War Information during World War Two, coordinating public information from the military and mobilizing public support for the war effort and undermining enemy morale. He successfully campaigned against efforts to strip Japanese Americans of their citizenship and opposed the

anti-communist investigations of Sen. Joseph McCarthy.


PENDLETON DUDLEY, a pioneer public relations consultant, opened an agency on Wall Street in 1909. Dudley emphasized the public information model of public relations. Today Dudley-Anderson-Yutzy, a subsidiary of Ogilvy & Mather Advertising, is admired for its introduction of innovative techniques to win public approval.


DORMAN EATON first used the term "public relations" in 1882 when he addressed Yale Law School graduates on "The Public Relations and Duties of the Legal Profession." The attorney used the term to refer to an organization's role in service the public welfare.


PRESIDENT DWIGHT EISENHOWER established the United States Information Agency to "tell America's story abroad." He also appointed the first woman press secretary (see Ann Williams Wheaton).


JAMES ELLSWORTH established the public relations program of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company in the early 1900's, working closely with THEODORE VAIL, AT&T's consumer-minded founder. Ellsworth's activities led to support by the public for the concept of a private monopoly operating with government regulation in the public interest.


HENRY FORD in the first decade of the 1900's was the first major industrialist to make extensive use of two basic public relations concepts: positioning and accessibility to the media. Ford's public relations counselor was EARL NEWSOM, who worked behind-the-scenes in a planning capacity, with Ford bearing the public persona of his company.


PAUL GARRETT in 1931 became the first person to direct public relations at General Motors. During his 25 years at GM, he emphasized quality performance, public interest, and honesty as corporate public relations principles. His effectiveness inspired other corporations to establish public relations departments.


DENORA ‘DENNY’ GRISWOLD founded Public Relations News, the first newsletter about public relations. She also operated her own public relations agency with her husband, Glenn Griswold.


REX HARLOW became the first full-time public relations educator when he began teaching at Stanford University in 1939. He founded the American Council on Public Relations and guided its development into the Public Relations Society of America in 1947.


JOHN W. HILL in 1927 founded Hill and Knowlton, following a17-year career as a newspaper reporter, editor, and financial columnist. For 50 years, he guided the company to become one of the largest public relations agencies in the world. In 2001 the agency had 1,117 employees generating fees of more than $325,000,000 a year. Hill reflected a two-sided goal for public relations: to provide information in non-controversial situations, and to provide advocacy and persuasion when controversy exists.


SAMUEL INSULL, president of the Chicago Edison Company, pioneered consumer relations practices. His company developed the first "bill stuffers" in 1912. It also used news releases and external magazines. Insull was the first person to make public relations films.


INEZ KAISER is credited as being the first female African-American to establish her own public relations firm with national accounts. She began her agency in 1980.


AMOS KENDALL (photo) was a writer and editor from Kentucky who became one of the most influential assistants of PRESIDENT ANDREW JACKSON. In 1829 he became, in effect, the first White House press secretary. Kendall wrote speeches, state papers, and news releases, and he conducted opinion polls. He also developed the administration's own newspaper.


MOSS KENDRIX was a public relations and marketing consultant who promoted African American visibility and tried to affect a positive portrayal of blacks in advertising. Kendrix was the first African American with a major marketing account (Coca Cola). Other clients included Carnation, Ford Motors, and the National Education Association.


WALTER LIPPMANN was a newspaper reporter and columnist who wrote the first book focused on the role of the media and public relations in a democratic society, Public Opinion, published in 1922. The book is credited with helping launch the profession of public relations.


PRESIDENT ABRAHAM LINCOLN was a master at strategic communication. He wisely communicated with Congress and with the people. His Civil War adversary, meanwhile – JEFFERSON DAVIS, president of the Confederate States – kept most matters secret, failed to take the public into his confidence, and made decisions behind closed doors. Since much of the war focused on public opinion, it is little wonder that Lincoln was more successful than Davis in marshalling public opinion, mainly because he recognized the value of an informed and energized citizenry.


IVY LEDBETTER LEE was a journalist and a publicist before he distinguished himself as the first public relations counselor. Along with Edward Bernays, Lee is recognized as one of the founding fathers of modern public relations for leading the transition from press agentry to the public information model. The emergence of contemporary public relations dates from 1906, when Lee was hired by the anthracite coal industry to advise it toward settling a strike. He later counseled railroads and governments. His most famous client was JOHN D. ROCKEFELLER. Lee is known for his 1906 "Declaration of Principles" which called for honesty with the press and public. Lee died in 1934 in disgrace, having been investigated by Congress because his last client was the Nazi-operated German Dye Trust.


JOHN MARSTON defined a four-step management process for public relations in his 1963 book, The Nature of Public Relations. He used the acronym RACE (research, action, communication, evaluation).


GEORGE MICHAELIS founded the Publicity Bureau in Boston in 1900, the nation's first press agency. He advised clients to pay attention to internal "human relations." The publicity firm came to national prominence in 1906 when it was hired by railroads to help them oppose government regulation. The unsuccessful outcome of the campaign led the railroads to drop the Publicity Bureau and established their own public relations departments. The bureau went out of business in 1911.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA became the first US president to make regular use of social media, beginning with his 2008 electoral campaign. These media included Facebook (launched in 2004), MySpace (launched in 2003), YouTube (launched in 2005), and Twitter (launched in 2006). Actually, Democratic candidate JOHN KERRY was the first presidential politician to use social media when he established an account on just-launched Facebook during the 2004 campaign. But it was Obama’s successor, PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP, who ushered in a practice of continuous tweeting by a president.


ARTHUR W. PAGE in 1927 became the first vice president for public relations with the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, now AT&T. He insisted that public relations should be built on performance rather than publicity. During the Second World War, he helped create Radio Free Europe to promote America and democratic values with broadcasts into the Soviet bloc during the Cold War.


GEORGE PARKER, a former Buffalo journalist, directed publicity for GROVER CLEVELAND in his three presidential campaigns. Parker was handling publicity for the National Democratic Committee in 1904 when IVY LEE was hired as his assistant. The two men formed a public relations agency in New York City the following year, but the agency lasted only four years because Parker held to the publicity perspective while Lee wanted something more in public relations. Parker left to become publicity director for the Protestant Episcopal Church and later returned to political publicity.


JOHN and FRANK PATTERSON, founders of National Cash Register (now NCR Corporation), in the early 1900's used brochures, newsletters, and fliers in the first direct-mail campaign.


BETSEY ANN PLANK, called the “first lady of public relations" and “godmother of PRSSA,” became the first female president of PRSA in 1973. She served as public relations director at Illinois Bell (later SBC Communications) and later ran her own public relations agency in Chicago.


HENRY ROGERS developed publicity campaigns for Hollywood stars and is credited with creating the profession of entertainment public relations. His clients included Rita Hayworth, Joan Crawford, Audrey Hepburn, and Gary Cooper.


PRESIDENT FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT used several public relations vehicles. In 1933 he began his series of "fireside chats" to inform and persuade American citizens. He also expanded the role of the Office of War Information during the Second World War.


PRESIDENT THEODORE ROOSEVELT was the first president to make extensive use of the public relations techniques of news conferences and interviews. He saw the White House as a "bully pulpit" with much potential for publicity and advocacy.


CHARLES J. SMITH was one of the first persons hired by a corporation to do what today we call public relations. In 1899, the Mutual Life Insurance company hired him to write news releases to improve its image.


WILLIAM WOLFF SMITH in 1902 opened the nation's second public relations agency, a firm in Washington DC specializing in influencing legislators through publicity. The firm, which lasted only until 1911, specialized in press agentry to businesses defending themselves against muckrakers.


GEORGE WESTINGHOUSE established the first corporate in-house public relations department in 1889, headed by former journalist E. H. HEINRICHS. The department was charged with promoting Westinghouse's alternating current against the direct current of Thomas Edison’s General Electric Company. Westinghouse and Heinrichs were successful in achieving the adoption of AC current as the nation’s standard.


ANNE WILLIAMS WHEATON was named associate press secretary to President Dwight Eisenhower in 1957, the first women in such a role. Her appointment called attention to the growing role of women in public relations.




Professional Organizations

1929: Religious Public Relations Council (RPRC) established

1935: National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA) established

1936: National Association of Accredited Publicity Directors (NAAPRD) established (renamed in 1944; merged in 1947 into PRSA)

1938: American Association of Industrial Editors established (merged in 1970 into IABC)

1939: American Council on Public Relations established (ACPR) (merged in 1947 into PRSA)

1944: NAAPRD renamed National Association of Public Relations Counsel (NAPRC)

1947: NAPRC and ACPR merge to form Public Relations Society of America (PRSA); based in New York City

1948: Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS) / Société Canadienne des Relations Publiques (SCRP) established, based in Ottawa

1948: Institute of Public Relations founded in England

1953: Agricultural Relations Council established

1955: International Public Relations Association (IPRA) established; based in London

1956: Council on Public Relations Education established within Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication

1956: Foundation for Public Relations Research and Education established within PRSA

1960: National Society of Fund Raising Executives (NSFRE) established

1961: American Public Relations Association merged into PRSA

1968: Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA) established, with PRSA affiliation; based in New York City

1969: National Investor Relations Institute (NIRI) established

1970: International Association of Business Communications (IABC) established with merger of AAIE and International Council of Industrial Editors

1974: Corporate Communicators of Canada merged into IABC

1975: Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) established

1982: Issue Management Council established

1984: Hispanic Public Relations Association established

1987: National Black Public Relations Society established

1989: Foundation for Public Relations Research and Education separated from PRSA and renamed itself the Institute for Public Relations 

1997: National Communications Council for Human Services merged into PRSA

2000: RPRC renamed Religion Communicators Council (RCC)

2005: Institute of Public Relations granted “chartered” status by the British Privy Council, formally changing its name to Chartered Institute of Public Relations

Pioneers in Public Relations History